New York Yankees — Luis Sojo
Luis Sojo’s disproportionate popularity among Yankee fans is best explained by a 10-hopper that just squeaked through the middle in the last inning of the deciding game of the 2000 World Series. However, even before that clutch single against Al Leiter, Sojo had earned cult status in the Bronx. Normally, the warmest receptions at Yankee Stadium are reserved for the best players, but despite his well-below-average production in pinstripes — Sojo’s OPS+ with the Yankees was 62 — when Sojo’s name was announced, the cheers always seemed to get louder. In fact, for a period of time, he was even a permanent part of the Bleacher Creatures' roll call.
Sojo never did much to distinguish himself as a Yankee, so there isn’t a particular moment when he earned the fans’ affection. The truth is he didn’t need one. The reason for his popularity was as plain as the nose on his face. Or, maybe it was his elongated chin, aged face, and less-than-flattering way he filled out his pinstripes? Although Sojo’s modest abilities weren’t sufficient to make an impression on the Stadium crowd, his underwhelming physical appearance is what made him really stand out. Because Sojo looked more like someone you’d see playing softball in the park, not infield at Yankee Stadium, he took on the role of an everyman, one to whom fans could relate instead of admire. Did playing on four championship teams add to his cult status? Sure, but while many candidates could have been cast as a good luck charm, it was Sojo who best fit the part.
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Heading into 2011, the Boston Red Sox were the overwhelming World Series favorites. They'd added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to an already-strong team, while their main opponents had stood pat. They promptly lost their first six games and their record at the end of April was 11-15. The only bright spot was backup shortstop Jed Lowrie, who hit .368/.389/.574 and earned himself the #legendofjedlowrie hashtag.
This didn't last, of course. It never lasted with Jed Lowrie (as Houston fans are now discovering). We could always cite those small-sample bursts of magnificence, talk about how his .907 OPS down the 2010 stretch was surpassed among shortstops only by Troy Tulowitzki. Add in the goofy grin framed by 80-grade ears, and his oft-dirtied uniform, and you had all the makings of an easy fan favorite. We could make excuses for his iron glove (shortstop's hard, man). And it's not like we had vintage Nomar waiting in AAA. But Lowrie just couldn't stay on the field.
I've never liked the phrase "health is a skill;" it implies more agency than it should. Health absolutely is a tool, though, and it's one Lowrie's never had. It was incredibly enjoyable to watch Jed for 80 games every year. It's a shame it couldn't have been more.
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When you talk about a player who might not have been terrific on the field but whom fans couldn't help but like, it sounds like you are describing Travis Snider. Snider was a top prospect for the Blue Jays and was called up in late August of 2008, at age 20, putting up a .301/.338/.466 line that year. Considering that auspicious start, you would have thought that, at some point, the team would give him 500 at-bats to see just what he could do, but no. We did have a revolving door of useless players who were good several years before: Kevin Millar, Fred Lewis, Brad Wilkerson, Kevin Mench, Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera, Eric Thames (okay, not all of them were once good). Snider would get called up, have a bad week or go 0-for-4 sometime, and back to the minors he would go.
Manager Cito Gaston, in particular, didn't like Snider, but then Cito didn't get along with Shawn Green and John Olerud (among others) either. Cito preferred players who would try to pull the ball (it worked well for Jose Bautista), and disliked guys who would take a pitch the other way or weren't aggressive enough at the plate. Snider knew that he wasn't a favorite of Cito's and he never seemed to be able to get comfortable around him.
Fast-forward: Cito retires and I think Snider is finally going to get those 500 at-bats in a season. But no, we play Juan Rivera and Eric Thames instead. This year, the Jays keep Snider in the minor, despite roughly 75 injuries to Blue Jay players. Finally, when everyone else is injured, Snider seems likely to finally get playing time and they trade him for a middle reliever. His career line, as a Blue Jay, is .248/.306/.429. Maybe he wouldn't have become the player I thought he might, but the Jays didn't exactly do a good job of bringing him along. I've always been a fan of the guys that have had to overcome a lot to make it in the majors, I'm hoping Travis Snider is one of them.
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One of the major flaws of recent Orioles teams is their love for handing out multi-year contracts to relief pitchers. Most of those pitchers didn't pan out, and most of them I didn't like. But when Jamie Walker was signed to a three-year deal with the O's, I found myself with a new favorite. Only Walker's first year with the Orioles was good, but his personality was a winner throughout. With his thick southern drawl and quotes like, "If it fits in a skillet, I kill it," Walker's good-old-boy personality, something that normally might rub me the wrong way, was completely endearing. When the Orioles signed Koji Uehara out of Japan, Walker bought him cowboy boots and set to teaching him English. The video that surfaced of Uehara walking around the clubhouse in shorts and cowboy boots while Walker looked on approvingly was priceless.
When it became clear that Walker’s career was over, it was painful watching a beloved player become so obviously miserable. But unlike others, Walker didn’t offer excuses, didn’t vow a comeback. Upon being mercifully designated for assignment, Walker hopped into his Trans Am (with custom plate reading I Heart Dixie) and rode off into the sunset, never to be heard from again.
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Jonny Gomes, hands down, is my Rays cult favorite player. He never quite developed into the player we all hoped he could be while with the Rays, but he provided us with endless entertainment. Whether it was missing fly balls in hilarious fashion, chugging beer from a used jock in celebration, donning outrageous sombreros because why not, or laying an epic beatdown on Coco Crisp, he was by far the goofiest player on the field at any time. And when you consider that he lost his best friend in a car accident at age 16 and suffered a major heart attack at age 22, you can't help but root for the guy.
Heck, Gomes even inspired his own custom statistics on DRaysBay: Brawlfense and GomesRage. He's a living legend.
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